PHILLIPS, Thomas (c.1556-?1626), of London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. c.1556, 1st s. of William Phillips of London by Joan, da. of Thomas Houghton. educ. ?Trinity, Camb. 1569, BA 1574, MA 1577. m. Mary, s.p. suc. fa. 1590.1

Offices Held

Servant to (Sir) Francis Walsingham prob. by 1578, to Earl of Essex c. 1592; customs official by 1591, collector of petty customs and tonnage and poundage on exports, London by 1594; servant to (Sir) Robert Cecil by 1600.2


The identity of this Member is a matter of inference. No local man of the name connected with Hastings has been found, and it is therefore conceivable that the MP may have been nominated in 1584 by the lord warden of the Cinque Ports, Lord Cobham. His re-election in 1586 would have followed the government advice that the same Members should be chosen as in the previous Parliament. To suggest that the Member was Sir Francis Walsingham’s servant, the decipherer Thomas Phillips, may at first seem unlikely, if only because Lord Cobham belonged to Burghley’s political group whereas Walsingham—who must have asked Cobham for the seat—belonged to the Leicester group. However, when Lord Cobham’s brother, Sir Henry Cobham alias Brooke was ambassador in France from 1579 to 1583—having Walsingham as a colleague on a special mission in 1581—Phillips was evidently used by him in deciphering and seems to have been allotted to his service. Consequently the assumption that Phillips was a Cobham nominee in the Parliaments of 1584 and 1586 is reasonable. Though the presence of Edward Phelips in both 1584 and 1586 Parliaments makes certainty impossible, the likelihood is that the Hastings burgess took no part in the affairs of either Parliament.

Phillips the decipherer first comes to notice in June 1578 when, as ‘young Phillips’, a servant of Sir Francis Walsingham, he attended Sir Amias Paulet at the Paris embassy as, already, a skilled decipherer and code breaker. Presumably Walsingham was using him as an agent in foreign intelligence work. A letter of March 1583 suggests that he was then travelling on the Continent as a private agent of Walsingham.3

Few details of his family background and private life have survived. His father, who died in 1590, was a cloth merchant of modest wealth, and at the time of the heralds’ visitation of London in 1568 was one of the customers for wool in the port. The design of the signet ring which Thomas used to seal documents—probably the one mentioned in his father’s will—may indicate some relationship to the Phelips family of Montacute. At different times Phillips owned land in Suffolk, Yorkshire and Staffordshire, but his home was London. He inherited a house in Leadenhall Street, and also owned property at Holborn, Chiswick and elsewhere. Because his mother lived until 1613, part of the inheritance did not come to him until after he needed it most. As partial compensation for the paucity of information about Phillips there is a description of him in 1586 by Mary Queen of Scots: ‘of low stature, slender every way, dark yellow haired on the head, and clear yellow bearded, eaten in the face with smallpox [and] of short sight’.4

It may have been Phillips’s puritan views which first brought him to Walsingham’s notice. By the mid-1580s he was one of Walsingham’s most important confidential servants. The major part of his work, until the secretary’s death in 1590, was concerned with the detection of Catholic threats from home and abroad. Walsingham employed many ‘intelligencers’ or agents on the Continent. Sometimes they reported directly to him, but it was more usual for letters to be sent to Phillips. Under such names as ‘John Morice’ and ‘Peter Halins, merchant’, Phillips received despatches from Europe and Scotland and from agents at home. Writers to ‘John Morice’ had to pretend to be Catholics and one despatch even referred to ‘Phillips, that enemy to the cause’. Occasionally he went abroad himself to investigate matters of particular importance. Several times during the 1580s and 1590s he returned to Paris and to other places in France and the Netherlands. Some of the devices used to ensure secrecy can be studied in the State Papers. ‘Harry Jobson and his brokers’, for example, was the cipher for ‘the Queen and her Council’. Occasionally communications had secret messages added in onion juice.

As well as deciphering despatches sent to Walsingham, Phillips handled letters intercepted by the government. He claimed that it took him 20 days to break a cipher about a Spanish invasion plan, probably that of 1593. Sometimes he was not so successful, as a letter to Walsingham, dated 1582, suggests:

According to your Lordship’s order, I have travailed to my uttermost in the cipher which you sent me, wherein I have had such success as appears by what accompanies this; if not so good as was wished, yet I hope sufficient to satisfy her Majesty, who shall thereby find the substance of the letter ... Truly I have had to do, as your Lordship knows, with many ciphers, but I never lit upon any wherewith I was more cumbered.

Of necessity Phillips had a wide command of languages—French, Spanish, Italian, Latin and German at least—and, according to an acquaintance, the ability to ‘write any man’s hand if he had once seen it as the man himself that writ it’. Naturally his contemporaries were wary of him. One called him a ‘notable knave’, another ‘a severe Huguenot ... greedy of honour and profit’. In any case, after the death of Walsingham in 1590 his affairs took a turn for the worse. In 1592 he was deciphering letters for the Earl of Essex, through the recommendation of Francis Bacon, and he tried to gain the notice of the Cecils. But he tried to milk too much and too soon a lucrative little job in the customs, perhaps obtained on his father’s death, and by the end of 1594 he was heavily in debt to the Crown. Allowed a year’s respite, he failed to meet his commitments, and early in 1596 was in prison owing more than £11,500 and facing the Queen’s ‘tempestuous displeasure’. In June 1597 he was released, ‘in consideration of his faithful service’, but soon recommitted. As late as 1609 the debt was still considerable—indeed there is no evidence that it was ever repaid.5

Even in prison he continued his deciphering, but

as Samson’s strength lay in his hair, so my cunning depended upon the Queen’s favour, which, being lost, my spirits became dull.

Gradually, from about 1600, his reputation recovered sufficiently for Cecil to employ him again, at first as an agent in Europe and then as a decipherer. But James I never forgave him for his part in bringing Mary to the block (for which he was still enjoying a pension of 100 marks a year), his contemporaries distrusted him, and his correspondence with the Catholic Hugh Owen proved his undoing. In January 1605 he was ‘apprehended and committed, and all his papers seized’. Released in April, he complained that his correspondence with Owen had been solely in the line of business and expressed annoyance at the ‘vexatious’ manner in which his private papers had been searched and his servants and relatives cross-examined. He resumed his duties and took part in the seizure of the Gunpowder conspirators. But when Owen was found to be involved in the plot, Phillips was put in the Tower, confidence in his integrity gone for ever.6

Little is known of his last years. His debt to the Crown was still a burden and in 1618 he was involved in a costly lawsuit. In 1622 he was again in prison, but optimistic enough to petition for an ecclesiastical post ‘of the inferior sort’. The last references to him show him in prison in 1625. Accused of revealing the contents of a letter he had deciphered, he wrote a pathetic note describing his career in Elizabeth’s reign to a government which was obviously ignorant of his past services. He claimed that he had remained loyal, despite the offer of £1,000 and an annuity of 1,000 marks from a foreign agent. Some months later he was still in prison when called upon to decipher a letter in Spanish. An old man now, confined to prison, deep in debt, his lands seized, he had little to hope for. By March 1626 he was dead.7

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: M.R.P.


  • 1. J. Morris, Sir Amias Paulet’s Letter Bk. 114-19; Vis. London (Harl. Soc. xvii), 161; PCC 13 Sainberbe.
  • 2. CSP For. 1578-9, p. 37; Spedding, Bacon, i. 117-19; Cal. Carew Pprs. iii. 231; F. Dietz, Eng. Public Finance 1558-1641, p. 328; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, pp. 420, 442-3.
  • 3. CSP For. 1578-9, p. 37; CSP Dom. Add. 1580-1625, p. 86; HMC Hatfield, ii. 410.
  • 4. PCC 13 Sainberbe, 23 Capell; W. A. Copinger, Suff. Manors, v. 172; VCH Yorks. N. Riding, ii. 445; Morris, 119.
  • 5. C. Read, Walsingham, ii. 336; iii. passim; Spedding, i. 117-19, 251, 252; SP12/275/78; HMC Hatfield, v. 40, 101; vi. 118, 351, 391, 511, 513; vii. 84, 150; Lansd. 31, f. 62; 82, f. 180; 83, ff. 220, 233 seq., 241; 84, f. 58.
  • 6. HMC Hatfield, vi. 511, 513; vii. 96-7; CSP Dom. 1601-10, passim, esp. 1603-10, pp. 13, 90, 189; Chamberlain Letters ed. McClure, i. 202; H. Foley, Recs. Eng. Prov. Soc. of Jesus, iii. 513.
  • 7. CSP Dom. Add. 1580-1625, pp. 595-6, 630; 1623-5, p. 482; 1625-6, p. 169; 1627-8, p. 81.